The Menashe Skulnik Story in the Forward
Menashe Skulnik (1892-1970) was one of the great comic actors of the Yiddish theatre, remembered for his trademark porkpie hat and beloved for his schlemiel-like stage persona. In 1963, the Yiddish Forverts (Forward) newspaper published his serialized memoir, Menashe Skulnik dertseylt (The Menashe Skulnik Story).
In it, Skulnik chronicled the trajectory of his long career, from his early days in Warsaw to his English-language performances on Broadway, radio, and even television.
Each Sunday and Wednesday, over the course of nine months, installments of Skulnik’s memoir ran in the Forverts. Each installment is prefaced by a brief summary, and all of these summaries are presented here in English translation. From their contents it is evident that Skulnik was drawing upon a rich personal archive as well as on his memories of the events that he was recounting. The installments are also accompanied by numerous photographs of Skulnik and other Yiddish theatre personalities, in and out of costume. Menashe Skulnik dertseylt is accessible in digitized issues of the Forverts, via the Historical Jewish Press (part of the NLI Newspaper Collection).
Summaries translated by Zachary Baker.
Instead of a foreword, thanks to the Almighty. – I’ll tell only the truth. – Truth No. 1: “I was born.” – How old am I? – The curtain rises.
We move to Warsaw. – My father is a good worker and a poor provider. – Where he used to spend his nights. – My mother and her sense of humor. – A pretty mother, but without a tooth in her mouth. – The Jew and my swollen cheek.
My father brings me to kheyder. – I begin to read everything that comes my way. – My brother takes me to the theatre for the first time in my life. – “Who is Dolsky?” – I become a “theatre addict.”
My “debut” in the Polish theatre. – Then I move over to the circus and become a “clown.” – My father interferes and drags me back home. – First sufferings for art’s sake.
Years of wandering and hunger. – My first day in America. – How I was received at my brother’s home. – My brother “buys up” my foreign currency. – I visit the Actors’ Club. – I’m distraught.
My boyhood friend Harry Weinberg. – The five dollars that he lent me. – My debut in America. – I become a director. – “Sketches” back then.
I travel to Albany and return a rich man. – Misha German “borrows” money from me. – Peyse the waiter takes me in. – I’m hired by the Arch Street Theatre. – How I manage to come by a wife and two children.
My first earnings in Philadelphia. – One dollar and thirty-three cents for three weeks of work. – I play a serious heroic role; the audience rolls with laughter. – Max Rosenthal, the star of the Arch Street Theatre. – He made the actors tremble.
My fight with Max Rosenthal. – He curses my father and I deck him. – I get a raise in my wages. – Max Rosenthal’s revenge.
The most important person in the Yiddish theatre in those days. – The role of the prompter. – The stars didn’t know their roles. – Gershon Rubin doesn’t know his role and the critics praise him. – Anna Appel “bids farewell” three times to her daughter.
I work hard and the harder I work the less I have. – Anshel Schorr doesn’t give me raises in my wages. – But he gives me presents. – I plan to give up the theatre. – An invitation from the Actors’ Union to come for my tryout. – Should I go, or should I not go?
I study my roles while en route from Philadelphia. – No one recognizes me. – My tryout takes place in a “tavern.” – Jean Greenfield silences the crowd. – My pulse “stops.”
Have you ever in your life been really, truly hungry? – “Samples” of hungry days. – Three weeks on dry matzoh and hot water. – I find fifteen kopeks and commit a “great sin.”
Strolls with my father along the streets of Warsaw. – I live on one meal a day. – “Brunch suppers.” – My first steak. – My second steak. – Finally, I taste a genuine steak.
I’m a “genius” and I work as a toolmaker, a carpenter, and at other trades. – I’m invited to New York for an engagement. – I become a stage manager in Boston. – An incident between a “Poylisher” and a “Galitsyaner.” – I become a playwright; I cease being a playwright.
Maurice Schwartz hires me as “Ludwig Satz’s replacement.” – Mark Schweid, Yudel Dubinsky, and Muni Weisenfreund are hired for the same role. – A glass of ice-cold water. – I’m punished for not performing.
My “springtime” in the Yiddish theatre. – Rudolph Schildkraut hires me. – He gives lessons about the theatre. – I make an astounding discovery. – I decide to become a “super-realist,” a comic actor.
Once again, without an engagement. – How to turn an actor into a comedian? – The terrors of a “literary” actor. – I come close to taking a job with an insurance company but remain with the theatre.
The whole truth and nothing but the truth. – I become a partner in a theatre in the Bronx. – How I maneuvered among the theatres. – I play in the Hebrew theatre. – In addition, I become a subcontractor with the theatre. – The critics praise me and tear me down.
Why the wandering troupes weren’t trusted in Europe. – The hotel manager and his two large rooms. – I find an umbrella in a phone booth and I “annex” it. – A half hour of great terror.
My debut as a comedian was in Toronto. – In the first play I didn’t “bluff.” – I move in a new direction and become the city’s sweetheart. – Boaz Young can attest to that. – Moskvin, Vishnevsky, and Stanislavsky become my friends. – Elias Glickman invites me to come to Chicago.
“The two Jews of Toronto.” – I don’t want to become an impresario. – My brother-in-law Misha German. – The ovations in Toronto. – German and Guskin become my tutors. – I become a partner in Toronto.
The aggravation that I had as German’s partner. – The posters. – I leave the partnership. – My reputation as a “mentsh” sinks. – The new partnership with Yechiel Goldsmith and Isidore Hollander. – We propose a match to Goldsmith.
In Philadelphia, the city where for six years I was a writer of roles, I become a star. – Six stars in the Garden Theatre. – None of them remain. – I drive my own car all the way to Albany. – Eight days en route to Detroit.
We arrive in Detroit and “fall into” a banquet. – The lawyer Isaac Finkelstein graces us with a lecture about the theatre. – My friend Harry Weinberg. – A friendship that began during our childhood years. – A three-day trip from Detroit to Chicago.
We settle in Chicago. – My first role, Michalesko permits me to rewrite it. – I receive “my own press.” – My book with the collected jokes gets burned. – Where can I find a manager?
Elias Glickman becomes my agent. – He and William Morris get a contract for me with Fox Studios, but with an option. – What became of the contract. – My first engagement in New York. – The actors sabotage me.
Thursday evening, when benefit performances honoring actors take place. – Zolatarevsky writes a fourth act for me. – Misha German makes up with me. – I travel to Chicago with Joseph Schoengold. – How he became acquainted with me. – Why didn’t Schoengold become a star?
Joseph Schoengold engages me to travel with him to Buenos Aires, in place of Lucy Finkel – Telegrams fly back and forth. – We get to know the Jews of Buenos Aires. – My first speech in Argentina.
“The Big Earner” beats “Shabetai Zvi.” – An empty and a packed theatre. – Schoengold’s remarkable deed. – I cut pieces of newspaper and I bring down the house.
The tme’im [“impure” elements] and their sway over the Yiddish theatre in Buenos Aires in those years. – A visit to a “house” just outside the city and to a “parlor” in town. – The “wholesale market” in Rio de Janeiro. – The ten weeks fly by.
We bid farewell to Buenos Aires, with a big banquet. – Frances Adler travels home with us. – Memories of yesteryear. – We come to a shtetl and perform theatre. – How we managed to extricate ourselves from there.
Frances Adler and Joseph Schoengold open my eyes. – The season opens at the Folks-teater. – The play is Zalkin’s [i.e., Z. Libin’s] “Naye negidim” (Nouveaux riches). – Isidor Cashier’s “prank.” – I challenge him to a duel. – We become good friends.
The big success of “Di eybike mame” (The Eternal Mother). – Misha German owes me pay. – My daughter Royzele becomes a bride. – I become a manager in English vaudeville. – The telegram from Buenos Aires.
I purchase an arshin 2 of plays for Argentina. – With a cooperative troupe in the provinces. – The Jewish “cowboys.” – Moisés Ville. – Dynamite blasts summon the audience to the theatre. – I purchase expensive pocketbooks, gifts for our theatre.
R. Guskin wants to pass me off as a star. – He finally succeeds in making a deal with Detroit. – My friend Harry Weinberg gets to work. – How a star is born.
Abraham Littman and his hoarse bass voice. – Owners and other movers-and-shakers of the theatres. – My conflicts with the stagehands’ unions and with the audiences. – The hubbub over the six tickets. – How I silenced the outcries in the theatre.
I’m engaged by the Parkway Theatre. – The members of the troupe. – Max Friedlander, a prompter and a gag man. – A couple examples of roles that I wrote for myself.
Misha German comes to hire me once more. – I give him ultimatums and he accepts them. – He is not a successful person, and we allow our salaries to be cut. – He owes me money yet again.
1932, the year of the Great Depression. – I meet Gertrude Berg. – I become a radio actor. – I become a theatre entertainer. – The mistake that I made.
Oscar Green snatches me up from Lowenfeld. – Six weeks instead of one in the Hopkinson Theatre. – The actors want a raise. – Charlie Weinblatt, a good jokester and an unsuccessful manager. – Israel Rosenberg.
Actors have to sell tickets for the theatre. – We began to economize. – The first play in the Hopkinson Theatre, “Mr. Schlemiel.” – The critics find only one good actor in the troupe. – Who knows better how to die, the critic or the actor? – An allegorical tale.
I’m an impresario and a star. – “Getsl vert a khosn” (Getsl Becomes a Bridegroom), a huge success. – Isidore Lillian. – We go on tour in the Bronx during Passover. – The “blue blood” actors. – Edwin Relkin, the “Tsar” of the “road.” – He settles accounts with me.
Aboard the ship to Buenos Aires. – Once again, I relive episodes from my earlier life. – I’m on the verge of becoming a soldier. – My father wants me to mutilate myself. – I steal across the border.
Two competitors in Buenos Aires, Ludwig Satz and me. – Homeward bound, to New York. – The poker game on the train. – “Though he’s green, he’s a winner.” – The final evening in New York, when I played Tsar Nicholas.
I purchase Isaac Friedman’s “A Year Between Life and Death.” – Misha German hires me for the Parkway Theatre during Passover. – “The Straw Soldier.” – The theatre is packed. – I become Rumshinsky’s partner in the Folks-teater. – I search for a play. – “Fishl der gerotener” (Fishl the Success Story).
We make feverish preparations for the next season. – How a musical comedy is born. – “Fishl der gerotener.” – Rumshinsky and I are successful. – There weren’t enough wages for the two of us. – There’s something a little fishy at the “front.”
We helped two people with loans. – Joseph Rumshinsky recommends a new creditor to me. – He lends me five thousand. – Who is he?
We snatch up gems for the new season. – Fania Rubina. – We do a makeover to a play by Kalmanowitz. – The difficulties of bringing her over from Poland. – David Dubinsky comes to our aid. – Harry Weinberg also helped.
The huge success of “The Galician Rebbe’le.” – “When will the Yiddish Metropolitan Opera House come again?” – My mother is my biggest fan. – She blesses me for one last time.
The great businessmen that Rumshinsky and I were. – We don’t have any plays. – To go bankrupt, or not to go bankrupt? – The friendship that Jacob R. Schiff manifested toward me. – I take another trip to South America. – When I protected Yitskhok Leybush Peretz.
Yiddish actors in North America and Argentina. – The dispute between Irving Grossman and Boris Auerbach. – When “all right” is not enough. – Avrom Morevski comes to our theatre. – I prepare to slap him. – He throws himself at me and kisses me.
July 10. En route home from Brazil we sail into a severe tropical storm. – The ship is damaged. – I think that I can be brave. – The season is a “flop.” – Oscar Ostroff is my guardian angel. – He also gets helped.
I’m hired in Chicago. – Every day I fly to and from New York. – And what about sleeping? – I fly and fly.
Herman Yablokoff engages me for the Second Avenue Theatre. – Yablokoff the theatrical personality. – The telegram from NBC. – I’m brought in to perform in a broadcast of “Abie’s Irish Rose.” – The difficulties that arose from that.
I chase after agents. – Finally, I find a young pup. – How much do I get for a broadcast? – I get a raise of over four hundred dollars.
Anne Nichols pays me a thousand dollars for a broadcast. – William Rolland takes over the Second Avenue Theatre, and he engages me. – The theatre flourishes. – My great misfortune.
The productions of new plays. – More important things come first. – How a name gets picked. – The last one on the play’s roster. – The prosperity of the theatre during wartime.
Isidore Edelstein takes over the Second Avenue Theatre from Rolland and me. – His explanation. – I become a vaudeville star in Loew’s State Theatre. – A few critics and theatre managers come to see me. – Edelstein surprises me.
Abe Ellstein becomes my composer. – Ellstein, Sholem Perlmutter, Joseph Rumshinsky. – The notion of a parachute. – I fall down on stage. – A performance that makes me shudder. – I’m taken to the hospital in an ambulance.
At death’s door in the hospital. – My daily visitor, Anna Teitelbaum. – The theatre loses money, but Isidor Cashier pays full wages. – The response in the theatre to Roosevelt’s death.
Isidore Edelstein suddenly sold his lease for the theatre. – Why he did it. – With Rolland once again. – Now, however, I have a contract with him. – Emissaries from the Martinique night club.
I say “a couple of words” at the Martinique night club and I’m invited with a contract. – The wages are fantastic. – The previous night I “have a failure.” – I learn the reason. – The first evening.
My performances at the Martinique. – The young John [i.e., Jack] Carter. – When the audience wants to dance. – My contract is extended. – Why I don’t enjoy performing in night clubs. – I turn down a contract for ten thousand dollars a week.
I like America. – I’m tricked into a political rally. – How the endorsement got fed to me. – Congressman Klein rescues me from a quagmire.
My two wonderful daughters, Royzele and Hendele. – They obeyed me and left the stage. – Royzele and her husband, Leo Libkin. – Her sudden death.
My wife Anna was born in Germany and raised in Paris. – She became an actress there. – She’s my secretary, my manager and my protector.
My love for mame-loshn. – How I became a comedian. – About theatre criticism. – The Theatre Guild and Franz Werfel send after me. – They want me for the lead in “Jacobowsky and the Colonel.” – I’m dying to play that role.
My big disappointment. – Under no circumstances does Rolland want to free me up from my contract. – The annoying factions of the Yiddish press. – I inform Rolland that next season I won’t perform in the Yiddish theatre. – The uproar in the theatre world.
I finally leave the Second Avenue Theatre. – What became of that theatre. – What actors in Europe used to do. – Sylvia Regan “threatens” me with a comedy. – Meanwhile, another comedy is proposed to me. – I turn her down.
I become an idler. – Three radio performances a week for WEVD. – The National Broadcasting Company draws up a TV contract for me. – The young television actors. – I want to cancel the contract.
Against my will, I played for sixteen weeks on TV. – I earn more in the last three weeks than in the preceding thirteen. – Boxes full of mail. – I flee on account of a “quarrel.” – The reporters find us. – My wife Anna knows French and takes my place. – The hostility of the Yiddish newspapers.
I’m banished on account of two innocent jokes. – But Buenos Aires makes up with me. – I’m a guest of honor in the Yiddish theatres. – Once again, I’m harnessed to the wagon for ten productions.
The Yiddish portion of my memoirs comes to an end. – Summing up. – However, I want to tell more. – First, though, let’s catch our breath.
Appendix: Personalities mentioned in these summaries
Adler, Frances (1891-1964). Yiddish actress; daughter of the famous Yiddish stars Jacob P. Adler and Sara Adler; married to Joseph Schoengold.
Appel, Anna (1888-1963). Yiddish actress; a regular member of the Yiddish Art Theatre ensemble.
Auerbach (Averbakh), Boris (1890-?). Yiddish actor; active in New York City.
Berg, Gertrude (1899-1966). American Jewish actress, screenwriter, and producer; creator and star of the radio and television series “The Goldbergs.” (Menashe Skulnik played Uncle David Romain in the radio series.)
Carter, Jack (1922-2015). American actor, comedian, and television presenter.
Cashier (Casher), Isidor (1887-1948). Yiddish actor; a regular member of the Yiddish Art Theatre ensemble.
Dubinsky, David (1892-1982). Longtime president of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union.
Dubinsky, Yudel (1886-1963). Yiddish actor; a regular member of the Yiddish Art Theatre ensemble.
Edelstein, Isidore. Yiddish theatre manager in New York City; active in the Yiddish Theatrical Alliance; son of Joseph Edelstein (1858-1940), who was also a theatre manager.
Ellstein, Abe (1907-1963). Major Yiddish theatre composer; active in New York City; married to Sylvia Regan.
Finkel, Lucy (1897-1943). Yiddish actress; active in New York City; daughter of Yiddish actors Morris and Emma Finkel (who was Boris Thomashefsky’s sister). Her sister, the actress and screenwriter Bella Finkel (1898-1971), was married to Muni Weisenfreund.
Finkelstein, Isaac (1889-1989). Attorney in Detroit; Yiddish activist and editor; first president of the Sholom Aleichem Folk Institute of Detroit.
Friedlander, Max (1892-1966). Yiddish actor; prompter at the Parkway Theatre, Brooklyn; served as secretary-treasurer of the Hebrew Actors Union.
Friedman, Isaac (Yitskhok) (1893-1950). Yiddish playwright; wrote several hit plays for Menashe Skulnik and Herman Yablokoff.
German (Gehrman), Misha (1887-1947). Yiddish actor, conductor, and producer. His wife, Lucy German (1889-1954), was the sister of Menashe Skulnik’s first wife, Sarah (Kutner) Skulnik (1892-1943).
Glickman, Elias (1870 or 1871-1931). Yiddish actor and longtime Yiddish theatre impresario in Chicago.
Goldsmith, Yechiel (1889-1929). Yiddish actor and theatre manager.
Green, Oscar (1893-1966). Yiddish theatre manager; based in New York City.
Greenfield, Jean (Yankev) (1876-1944). Yiddish actor and theatre manager; based in New York City; served as president of the Hebrew Actors Union.
Grossman, Irving (1900-1964). Yiddish actor and star; based in New York City; served as president of the Hebrew Actors Union.
Guskin, Reuben (1887-1951). Labor leader: longtime manager of the Hebrew Actors Union; served as president of the United Hebrew Trades and the Workmen’s Circle.
Hollander, Isidore (1889-1941). Yiddish actor and director.
Jacobson, Irving (1898-1978). Yiddish actor, star and theatre manager. His wife Mae Schoenfeld formed the other half of the Jacobson-Schoenfeld comedy duo.
Kalmanowitz, Harry (1885 or 1886-1966). Prolific author of popular Yiddish plays, specializing in melodramas.
Klein, Arthur George (1904-1968). Attorney in New York City; served in the U.S. House of Representatives (as a Democrat) from 1941 to 1945 and from 1946 to 1956; New York State Supreme Court judge from 1957 to 1968.
Libin, Zalmen (Solomon) (1872-1955). Yiddish short-story writer and prolific playwright.
Libkin, Leo (1911-1972). Served as Treasurer of the Yiddish Folks Theatre (Folks-teater); husband of Menashe and Sarah Skulnik’s daughter Royze.
Lillian, Isidore (1882-1960). Prolific Yiddish playwright, active in New York City.
Littman, Abraham (1880-1962). Yiddish theatre impresario in Detroit.
Lowenfeld (Lohnfeld), Samuel (1878-?). Yiddish actor and theatre manager; based in New York City.
Michalesko, Michal (Michael) (1888-1957). Yiddish actor and star.
Morewski, Awrom (Avrom Morevski) (1886-1964). Polish Yiddish actor and star; performed with the Vilna Troupe and played the Rebbe of Miropol in the 1937 film version of “The Dybbuk.”
Morris, William (1832-1932). Vaudeville and theatrical talent agent; founder of the William Morris Agency (established in 1898).
Moskvin, Ivan Mikhailovich (1874-1946), Russian actor; appointed director of the Moscow Art Theatre in 1943.
Nichols, Anne (1891-1966). American playwright; author of “Abie’s Irish Rose.”
Ostroff, Oscar (1904-1979). Yiddish actor, playwright, and theatre critic.
Perlmutter, Sholem (1884-1954). Yiddish playwright and prompter; founder of the League of Yiddish Playwrights and of the Society of Jewish Composers, Lyricists, and Publishers. His important archive is at YIVO (RG 289).
Regan, Sylvia (1908-2003). American playwright; author of “The Fifth Season”; married to Abe Ellstein.
Relkin, Edwin (1880-1952). Yiddish theatre producer; served as manager of the Yiddish Art Theatre and later as Maurice Schwartz’s personal manager.
Rolland, William (1885-1960). Yiddish theatre impresario and manager; active in New York City.
Rosenberg, Israel (1895-1963). Prolific Yiddish playwright, actor, producer of Yiddish radio programs. The Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler was his nephew.
Rosenthal, Max (ca. 1865 or 1866-1938). Yiddish actor and director; star at the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia.
Rubin, Gershon (1878-1932). Yiddish actor; active in New York City.
Rubina, Fania (1906-1997). Yiddish actress; arrived in 1936 from Poland, served as Skulnik’s co-star in “Mr. Schlemiel.” She remained in the U.S. during and after World War II.
Rumshinsky, Joseph (1881-1956). Major Yiddish theatre composer; active in New York City.
Satz, Ludwig (1891-1944). One of the Yiddish theatre’s greatest comic actors.
Schiff, Jacob R. (1879-1949). Lithuanian-born attorney and philanthropist in New York City, a patron of the Yiddish theatre. Not to be confused with the German-born banker and philanthropist Jacob Henry Schiff (1847-1920)!
Schildkraut, Rudolph (1862-1930). Star of stage and screen in Austria, Germany, New York, and Hollywood; performed in both German and Yiddish.
Schoenfeld, Mae (1905 or 1906-1978). Yiddish actress and theatre manager; active in New York. Her husband Irving Jacobson formed the other half of the Jacobson-Schoenfeld comedy duo.
Schoengold, Joseph (1887-1943). Yiddish actor; married to Frances Adler.
Schorr, Anshel (1871-1942). Yiddish playwright, stage director, and theatre manager (most notably, at the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia, 1912-1927).
Schwartz, Maurice (1890-1960). Yiddish actor, star, director, and impresario; founded and for many years led the Yiddish Art Theatre; directed and starred in Yiddish films.
Schweid, Mark (1891-1969). Yiddish author, actor, director, and playwright; active in New York City.
Stanislavsky, Konstantin Sergeevich (1863-1938), Russian actor, director, and theoretician; a co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre.
Teitelbaum, Anna (1896-1992). Yiddish actress; active in New York City. She married Menashe Skulnik after the death of his first wife, Sarah Skulnik (1892-1943), who was also a Yiddish actress.
Vishnevsky, Aleksandr Leonidovich (1861-1943), Russian actor; involved with the Moscow Art Theatre.
Weinberg, Harry (1889-1982). Yiddish actor, radio host, cultural activist in Detroit; Menashe Skulnik’s oldest and one of his closest friends.
Weinblatt, Charlie (1877-1937). Attorney, Yiddish theatre manager.
Weisenfreund, Muni (Paul Muni) (1895-1967). Oscar-winning star of stage and screen. The son of Yiddish actors, Muni had a distinguished career on the Yiddish stage (including several seasons with the Yiddish Art Theatre) before turning his sights to Broadway and Hollywood.
Werfel, Franz (1890-1945). Austrian Jewish novelist, playwright, and poet; author of the novels The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, The Song of Bernadette, and the play Jacobowsky and the Colonel (made into the Hollywood film Me and the Colonel, starring Danny Kaye).
Yablokoff, Herman (1903-1981). Yiddish actor, star, composer, playwright, director, and producer. Nicknamed “Der Payats” (The Clown), after the title of one of his shows. Served as president of the Hebrew Actors Union and the Yiddish Theatrical Alliance.
Young (Yungvits), Boaz (Bernard) (1870-1955). Yiddish actor and star; he and his wife, the actress Clara Young (1882-1952), performed in the Soviet Union for over two years during the 1920s. (Later, she returned there and died in Moscow.)
Zolatarevsky (Solotorefsky, Zlatarewski, Zolotarefsky), Isidore (Isadore, Yitskhok) (ca. 1873 or 1875-1945). Prolific author of popular Yiddish plays, specializing in melodramas.
1In English-language playbills and advertisements his name was often spelled “Menasha Skulnick,” which is also how his name appears in the burial register for the Hebrew Actors Union section of Mount Hebron Cemetery. See https://www.mounthebroncemetery.com/interments/?page=1&fname=&lname=&yod=&society=&block=67&reference=1#results, accessed December 30, 2020.
2An arshin is a linear measurement, also known as the Russian cubit, equivalent to 28 inches or 71.12 cm. Figuratively speaking, Skulnik purchased a “yard’s worth” of plays for his South American tour.